Traffic backups creeping into once-country roads
Main road usage is equal to populations in some cities.
ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) -- By 7 a.m. on a Wednesday, traffic's backed up through four stoplights along this city's main drag. Cars are circling for spots in a "park and ride," where car poolers meet and buses head off for Philadelphia or New York -- 50 and 100 miles away. The highways are jammed, with red brake lights flashing for miles.
"Having grown up in the area, I'm absolutely shocked," said Nancy Shadlow, who moved back two years ago to the eastern Pennsylvania valley where she was raised. "I'm shocked how much traffic there is, all day long. Not during just rush-hour times."
Shadlow's complaint echoes across scores of American cities, home to tens of millions of beleaguered commuters. Every day, they're dealing with more cars on the road than ever, longer tie-ups and an epidemic of traffic congestion that's spread far beyond big cities. Clogged roads have become a headache in once-quiet places such as Charleston, S.C.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Omaha, Neb.
Disagreement over what to do about the problem -- and a lack of money and political will to either dramatically expand roads or radically change the way the nation gets around -- means Americans are stuck with traffic just as much as they're stuck in it.
Estimates of the waste caused by the situation are boggling.
*According to the Texas Transportation Institute, the field's leading research group, time lost to traffic delays in 2003 hit 3.7 billion hours. Add that up, and it equals more than 400,000 years. That's a time-span that would stretch back pre-car and pre-civilization to the days when scientists believe Homo sapiens were just starting to appear.
*Fuel lost to traffic jams in 2003 could fill every car in the country for six days of driving. That becomes even more costly now with gas at more than $2 a gallon.
*That old idea of rush hour? Now it's closer to a rush day. Roads are congested 7.1 hours every day, on average, in cities across the country. In Allentown alone, the number of cars on the main route on a busy day practically equal the city's population of 106,000, says Mike Kaiser, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission.
Still, numbers are awfully abstract to a driver who just lost 10 minutes of her day crawling through a traffic jam. To her, the costs are very personal.
It means leaving home earlier to make sure you're not late for work, missing family events, putting off errands until the weekend. Add rushing, worry and frustration and you get stress, and all the detrimental health effects it -- and sitting longer in your car -- can bring.
"It's definitely getting worse. It shocks me some days when I have to leave work, go to one location and then go home, and realize I just drove 60 miles and didn't really go anywhere," said Mike Reymann, a 38-year-old bank vice president in Minneapolis. "Suddenly, you're like, 'My God, I was just in the car for an hour and a half!'"
Over the years, it's become harder to move someplace where the traffic isn't grim.
Five metro areas were gridlocked so badly in the 1980s that the average driver experienced at least 20 hours of delay a year, according to the Texas institute.
By 2003, that number had exploded tenfold, to 51 metro areas.